Preview: Connacht v Cardiff Blues

Date published: November 24 2016

Connacht Rugby trio Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney and John Cooney have all returned from injury to take on the Cardiff Blues in Galway on Friday.

Buckley runs out at the Sportsground on Friday night for his 100th Connacht appearance and his first game in two months, packing down with the returning McCartney and tighthead Conor Carey.

James Cannon makes his first Connacht and PRO12 start alongside Irish international Quinn Roux in the second row. The back row, with captain John Muldoon at number eight, remains unchanged from the last round with flankers Eoin McKeon and Jake Heenan starting.

Less than two weeks after making his Ireland debut against Canada, wing Niyi Adeolokun starts at the Sportsground tomorrow night in a pacey back three with Cian Kelleher and Stacey Ili.

Craig Ronaldson partners Bundee Aki in midfield while October Player of the Month and outhalf Jack Carty is joined by Cooney on his season debut.

The most notable inclusion among the replacements is Marnitz Boshoff. The South African is in line to make his Connacht debut having arrived in Ireland last month following his commitments in the Currie Cup competition.

Ronan Loughney and Nepia Fox-Matamua also return from injury to take their place in the match day squad.

Commenting on the team selection and the upcoming game, head coach Pat Lam said:

"The break in games has been extremely beneficial as we have been able to get some players back from injury and work on improving our game.

"We really enjoy playing Cardiff as they are always a tough challenge. Our games always go right down to the wire. We will have to be on our game as their away form is very good this season.

"We know we have to improve on our last outing to get the points on offer so being back at the Sportsground after a long break is a major boost. The atmosphere will once again be electric as its all set to be a full house, which is fantastic on an international weekend."

Meanwhile, Ellis Jenkins captains Cardiff Blues as a host of first team regulars return to face Connacht in the PRO12.

Danny Wilson has made a total of 13 changes to the side that faced the Ospreys in the Anglo-Welsh Cup as attention turns back to Championship action.

Blaine Scully and Rey Lee-Lo return following their international exploits, with USA and Samoa respectively, and are joined in the backline by scrum-half Tomos Williams, who has been released by Wales, along with Alex Cuthbert.

Rhys Gill, Kristian Dacey and Scott Andrews have also been made available to start in the front row, while Josh Navidi has recovered from injury to start at number eight.

Head coach Wilson said: "The squad have trained really well, with some of them having had a break over the Anglo-Welsh Cup period, which they needed to recover from ten straight games on the bounce.

"They have had time to do some work on conditioning, skills and a game-plan for Connacht. They've come back as a whole group and trained well over the past few days in pretty horrendous conditions.

"During the last two weeks we've also managed to get a couple of injured players back which is a boost and are fortunate to have five Wales squad members released."

Connacht, the reigning PRO12 champions, have won just two fixtures in the competition this season but won the corresponding encounter during their march to the title last year.

However the Blues have a good record against the Galway-based province and Wilson hopes a victory will kick-start a crucial run of fixtures both in the PRO12 and Europe.

He added: "It's the start of 'block two' for us now that includes games against Connacht, Ulster, Bath twice, Dragons and Scarlets over Christmas. It's a huge block.

"Block one was 10 games of rugby, including two in Europe, and we won seven out of ten games. It was a period that was relatively successful. The disappointments were the couple of derbies we didn't perform to a level we wanted to.

"We now have an opportunity to go to Connacht, the champions, and it would be great for us to pick up a win that we haven't had there in a while.

"Having said that, we hadn't won at Treviso, Munster or Zebre in a while and we managed to do that.

"We will be looking for another away win, but we know it doesn't get any tougher than Connacht."

Form: Connacht have won just two games in the PRO12 this season, both at home, to Edinburgh and Ulster in Rounds 5 and 6 – the only occasions they have scored four tries. Connacht have already been defeated by the other three Welsh regions this season. Cardiff Blues' 34-28 victory in Treviso in Round 8 ended a three game losing run in the PRO12. The Blues' only away defeat in the Championship since March came when they visited Ospreys on 7 October. Cardiff Blues' solitary defeat to Connacht in their last six encounters was 31-36 at The Sportsground in this equivalent fixture in Round 3 last season. 

The teams:

Connacht: 15 Cian Kelleher, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Bundee Aki, 12 Craig Ronaldson, 11 Stacey Ili, 10 Jack Carty, 9 John Cooney, 8 John Muldoon (c), 7 Jake Heenan, 6 Eoin McKeon, 5 James Cannon, 4 Quinn Roux, 3 Conor Carey, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Denis Buckley
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 Ronan Loughney, 18 JP Cooney, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Nepia Fox-Matamua, 21 Caolin Blade, 22 Marnitz Boshoff, 23 Danie Poolman

Cardiff Blues: 15 Dan Fish, 14 Blaine Scully, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Tom James, 10 Steve Shingler, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Josh Navidi, 7 Ellis Jenkins (c), 6 Josh Turnbull, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 George Earle, 3 Scott Andrews, 2 Kristian Dacey, 1 Rhys Gill
Replacements: 16 Matthew Rees, 17 Brad Thyer, 18 Taufa'ao Filise, 19 Macauley Cook, 20 Shane Lewis-Hughes, 21 Rhodri Davies, 22 Alex Cuthbert, 23 Matthew Morgan

Date: Friday, 25 November
Venue: The Sportsground
Kick-off: 19:35 GMT
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Simon Rees (Wales), John Carvill (Ireland)
TMO: David Sainsbury (Scotland)